Clarence Thomas: The Supreme Court’s most happy fella

Cliff Owen/Associated Press - Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas laughs while talking with other guests at The Federalist Society's 2011 Annual Dinner.

There was a different Clarence Thomas onstage at the Federalist Society’s annual gala Thursday night. In the words of the playwright, he was the Supreme Court’s most happy fella.

In front of an adoring crowd of 1,300 conservatives and being gently interviewed by Judge Diane S. Sykes of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit in Chicago, Thomas was full of “love”: for his colleagues, for his law clerks, for his wife, for his life.

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There were even kind words for Yale Law School, from which Thomas was once so estranged that he adorned the frame of his diploma with a cheap cigar price tag and stowed it in his basement.

“I never thought that I would treasure doing my job, and I’ve reached that point,” Thomas, 65, said. “Even the most boring cases to others are fascinating to me.”

He said: “I’ve gotten to this point where it’s like the priesthood,” for which he once trained. “This is what I’m called to do.”

Quite a contrast from the moment more than 22 years ago when his wife, Virginia, delivered the news that the bitter battle over his nomination had concluded with the Senate voting narrowly to confirm him.

“Whoop-de-damn-do,” was the reaction he recounted in his memoir, “My Grandfather’s Son.” The book is both a testimonial to his hardworking grandfather and a bitter, score-settling takedown of his enemies.

Thomas remains the court’s most complicated and controversial member. To the part of the public that pays attention to the court, he is perhaps best known for not asking questions at oral arguments. For the few who make it to the court to witness the justices at work, he is always silent, usually rocking far back in his leather chair, eyes skyward.

Outside the court, Thomas has often complained about the burdens of his lifetime appointment. At an event in 2009 for high school students, the justice recalled looking longingly from his chamber windows at the seemingly carefree passing pedestrians.

“I tend to be morose sometimes,” he said, describing his job as an “endeavor” that sometimes could be called “an ordeal.”

But his colleagues and friends talk of a different person — one with a booming laugh and welcoming word for everyone who works at the marble palace, from the chief justice to the janitor.

It was that Thomas literally on display on the giant video screens in the vast ballroom of the Omni Shoreham, a grinning man in a vested tuxedo, his now-receding hair a startling white.

He laughed about his past as a campus radical at Holy Cross College (“But I was never a dopehead,” he said), his support of the Black Panthers, his appeal to God to cure his hatred and his unlikely path to the court, which he said began with a decision in 1979 to pack his belongings in a U-Haul and move to Washington.

“And fortuitously, again, good people looking out for me, Senator [John] Danforth, offered me a job. And so I came here, and I was only going to stay a couple of years and go back to Savannah, and one thing led to another, and I ended up on the court,” he said.

As the crowd’s laughter died down, Thomas added: ‘No, it was like totally ‘Forrest Gump.’ ”

Thomas didn’t seem particularly interested in Sykes’s questions about the workings of the modern court — the rise, for example, of a specialized bar of Supreme Court practitioners.

“There are a lot of briefs, and people doing a lot of talking,” Thomas said. “I mean, it’s law.”

But he drew a brief standing ovation when Sykes noted that he was the justice least likely to defer to the court’s precedents, a doctrine called stare decisis.

Thomas said he had an “affinity” for stare decisis, “but not enough to keep me from going to the Constitution.”

The night was not without controversy, of course. Critics say that Thomas and Sykes should not have been appearing before the conservative legal society.

Common Cause, the Alliance for Justice and Rep. Louise M. Slaughter (D-N.Y.) sent a letter of complaint to Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and filed a formal complaint against Sykes. They say the appearance violates the Code of Conduct for United States Judges, which bars judges from being a “speaker, a guest of honor, or featured on the program” of a fundraising event.

The code doesn’t cover Supreme Court justices, although they have said in the past that they abide by it.

The Federalist Society says the event — with four courses for $200 a person — is not a fundraiser but part of its annual convention. Thomas and Justices Antonin Scalia and Samuel A. Alito Jr., in recent years, have rotated as the after-dinner speaker.

There were “gold,” “silver” and “bronze” sponsors, and the donor with the largest typeface in the dinner program was Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, the powerhouse law firm that happens to employ two “first sons” — Eugene Scalia and Philip Alito.

Maybe it was the braised short ribs and bottles of Hogue cabernet sauvignon on the table, but there was no hint of controversy among the jolly crowd.

Neither Sykes nor Thomas mentioned the duel with Anita Hill that shocked the nation during the justice’s confirmation hearing. And Sykes could hardly elicit a negative word.

Thomas swore that he never tired of his colleagues — his new family now — and said he needs no escape from what Sykes described as the cloistered life of the Supreme Court.

“I love the cloistered life. I was in the seminary,” Thomas said.

“One of my colleagues calls me Brother Clarence. I love that. I love my law clerks. I love my work that I get to do. Think about it: Every day I go in, and I get this wonderful opportunity to do this job.

“Sure, I can’t tell you that’s what I thought at the beginning, but that’s the way I am now.”

 
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